Superhero Super-Priming

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by: Roger Dooley

OK, here’s a quick task: take a minute to write down some common characteristics and behaviors that superheroes might exhibit… (DON’T read further until you have jotted down some ideas.)

Done? You should know that I have manipulated you and influenced your future behavior… but in a good way! If your local non-profit called you right now and asked for your help with, say, an upcoming fund-raising project, you would likely be much more willing to volunteer your time than before you started reading this and performing this little exercise!

Priming comes up frequently here at Neuromarketing, not least because it demonstrates the power of the subconscious to influence behavior. I described one of the better known examples in Priming the Customer – merely unscrambling sentences that contained a few words suggestive of age (”wrinked,” “gray,” “Florida”) caused subjects to walk more slowly as they left the room and headed for an elevator. If that isn’t startling enough, the new work showed that similar priming could have both an immediate effect but also an effect months later! And, though I know I’m starting to sound like an infomercial announcer, that’s not all – the behavior modified was much more significant than walking speed. The simple priming exercise significantly changed the probability that the subject would volunteer to help others, no small commitment and certainly something we might expect to be decided totally by conscious decision-making processes.

The study, From student to superhero: Situational primes shape future helping, was conducted by Leif D. Nelson of NYU’s Stern and Michael I. Norton of MIT. The researchers had their student subjects either list words related to a generic superhero, Superman in specific, or neutral words, or unscramble phrases that contained words in those categories.

In one study, the subjects who were primed with superhero words volunteered TWICE as many hours as those who saw neutral words. The final test was the most interesting. In earlier experiments, the researchers had found that priming subjects with “Superman” actually led to somewhat worse levels of volunteering than the neutral words, so they divided 112 subjects into groups primed either with “superhero” or “Superman” words. Again, the superhero subjects volunteered twice as much as the Superman subjects. Now, here’s the surprising part…

Even after a 90-day delay, people that were primed with superhero were four times more likely to volunteer than were those who had been primed with Superman. [Emphasis added.]

The researchers can’t explain exactly how that works, but speculate that it is due in part to the initial commitment made by the subjects while the priming was still fresh.

By using priming techniques to bypass people’s stable altruistic proclivities, and committing them to future behavior while these temporary goals were salient, we were able to commit them to future behavior usually thought to be impervious to such influences.

One obvious takeaway is for any organization seeking volunteers: do some superhero priming of your candidates, and you’ll be more successful because you have influenced their altruistic tendencies! Note that it seems to be key that the subject of the priming shouldn’t be external to the subject – Superman may be a superhero who helps people, but using him as a priming topic was actually worse than neutral priming.

Looking at this from a neuromarketing viewpoint, would this concept extend to products? Would a customer asked to name, say, six things one could do to preserve the environment be more likely to buy a hybrid car like Toyota’s Prius? Or, would unscrambling ten sentences containing words with a positive message about off-road fun sell more HUMMERs? I know of no published research on this, but it’s clear that simple priming can have a long-lasting impact.

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